By Meredith Stanton Vaselaar
Review Staff Writer
Saturday, June 18, had started out well: the weather was beautiful, Regan VanderBeek was hanging out with friends at the Adrian Campground, relaxing. Her fiancé, Lonnie Roloff, was in Oakdale, Minnesota, at Regan’s parents’ home, helping to build an outside deck that needed to be completed before the couple’s impending nuptials, scheduled for July. Later in the evening, Regan wasn’t feeling well and decided to head home. It wasn’t long before she was doubled over with severe stomach pain. The ambulance was called and Regan was quickly transported to the emergency room in Sioux Falls. The medical team prepped her and she underwent surgery in the early hours of Sunday, June 19, while her parents and Lonnie were on their way from Oakdale, to the hospital.
“The doctor discovered that I had a perforated ulcer in my stomach,” recalls Regan, “The doctor said that things didn’t look right, so he took quite a few biopsies and sent those to the lab. I stayed in the hospital for a week while I recovered. The doctor said I wouldn’t be going home until the results were back.” The doctor explained that the biopsies were precautionary; he thought perhaps there was an underlying infection. Although the biopsies would determine if the issue was cancer, no one was too worried at that point. “We were expecting that the treatment would be antibiotics and they would send us home,” explains Lonnie. Regan, a healthy, active 32 year-old, had no health issues, or a history of cancer in her family. On June 26, 2011, the doctor came back with the results: Regan had gastric (stomach) cancer. “My first thought was disbelief,” Regan recalls, “I thought: you’ve GOT to be KIDDING me!”
The next week was a flurry of tests: CT scans, MRI scans, blood work, and more. “The doctor thought the cancer had spread beyond the stomach, to the pancreas or liver,” says Regan, “we decided to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for a second opinion.” The Mayo received Regan’s test results from Sioux Falls, and conducted tests of their own, including exploratory surgery. “The diagnose of gastric cancer was confirmed, “says Regan, “the surgeon came in to tell us ‘this is the news you wanted to hear – the cancer is only in the stomach.’ It was such a relief that it hadn’t spread.” When in Sioux Falls, Regan was told that it would take a week or so to get things set for her meds and chemo treatments, which had not started when she went to the Mayo. “After the surgeon told us the cancer was just in the stomach, he explained about treatment, which would involve chemotherapy, but not radiation,” Regan says, “I asked him: when is all of this going to happen? He said, ‘This is the Mayo, we start today’!”
Gastric cancer often is asymptomatic in the early stages. It is very difficult to make an early diagnosis because early symptoms are vague. By the time there are significant symptoms, the cancer has most likely spread to lymph nodes or other organs. The doctors were stunned that Regan had no previous symptoms. One would not ordinarily find a perforated ulcer cause for celebration but, in Regan’s case, it led to a very early diagnosis of gastric cancer. With her age, her overall health, and the early detection, the doctors were optimistic. Regan began her chemo on July 14, 2011. She had three rounds of treatment over a nine-week period. “The first week of treatment I am too tired to have visitors or to be bored,” says Regan, “the second week I can do a few things, and friends come over and keep me company. The third week I feel pretty good. I do a lot of baking.” Says Lonnie, “the third week (baking) isn’t so good for me for staying in shape!”
It was just one week after Regan began her very first chemo treatment that she and Lonnie were married, as scheduled, at the home of her parents in Oakdale. It was another beautiful day and the happiness on the couple’s face is apparent in the photos that were taken that day. “I had some bruises and discoloration from the treatments and port-a-cath, but we were able to cover those up and I could wear my wedding dress,” says Regan. The couple returned to Adrian and settled into an unfamiliar routine, working around treatments at the Mayo and recovery at home. Lonnie says, “I’m used to doing stuff – cooking, taking care of the housework and our pets – so it’s worked out well.” Regan chimes in, “He’s being modest. He has done SO much!!! I made sure that he went on a guy’s weekend not too long ago, just so he could get away for awhile.” Regan’s family and Lonnie’s family has been very supportive, helping the couple out whenever possible.
Regan has not been able to work since she had emergency surgery on June 19. She works for the City of Worthington as a dispatcher. She does not anticipate returning to work before the first of the year. “My captain and the chief and everyone has been SO supportive!” Regan says, “I couldn’t have a better work family! The only time I cry is when I think of all that my work family has done for me!” It is this very same work family that is hosting a benefit for Regan to help offset the cost of treatment. The benefit will be held on Sunday, October 16, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at the Lismore Bar. The public is welcome to attend. There will be more information in next week’s paper.
Not long ago, Regan learned that the original nine weeks of chemo treatment were successful. “The cancer does not appear to have spread,” she explains, noting that the weeks during the first round of treatment were very tough. “It was the anxiety of those weeks that was the hardest – wondering if the chemo was doing anything to combat the cancer. When I found out the chemo was working, then it was worth it.”
As this story goes to press, Regan and Lonnie will be at the Mayo Clinic once again. They met with the surgeon on Friday, September 30. On Monday, October 3, Regan will undergo surgery, in which part or all of her stomach will be removed. “They will attach my esophagus to my small intestine,” says Regan, “and then I will need to learn what foods are digestible.” Regan will remain in the hospital for about a week after surgery. It will take six to eight weeks to recover from the surgery itself. Beginning three to four weeks after surgery, she will undergo another nine weeks of chemo treatments. “After the first round of chemo, when I heard the good news that the chemo had worked, it made me hopeful,” says Regan, “I thought to myself: ‘OK – I actually CAN beat this!”
Next week’s issue of the Nobles County Review will have an update on Regan’s surgery, as well as more detailed information on the upcoming benefit.